Resistance: Grand Marronage



Olivia Marie Cancio

The condition of black slaves in the American South during the first half of the nineteenth century was one of degradation and constant humiliation. Life for many was simply not worth living and escape to freedom was the only viable alternative. Indeed, the biggest deterrent to escape was the fear of the unknown. A slave, however, had to be willing to leave his family, friends, and familiar surroundings if he wanted to be free. In addition, a successful attempt required much preparation and substantial resources. (Genovese 650 )

It took more than a simple desire to be free to escape. Many slaves lacked the elementary knowledge of geography and the appropriate means of transportation to have a reasonable chance of escaping. It was indeed a rare occasion when a slave was able to forge papers and calmly depart on a boat, train or stagecoach. Female slaves had even a smaller probability of success because they did not have the proper skills and physical strength, and their ties to children and family were much stronger. (Genovese 650)

Historical research indicates that less than a thousand slaves per year escaped to the North, Canada, or Mexico. Whippings appear to have been the primary motivation of most escape attempts. Sadistic masters at times became so unbearable that escape was the only alternative. The decision to escape was a very hard one to make because if the slave was unsuccessful, the penalties were rather severe. Many slaveholders kept special hounds for the sole purpose of tracking down runaway slaves. The dogs struck terror into the slaves. Stories abounded of many of them being physically mutilated during their escapes by vicious dogs. Other masters employed professional slave catchers to assure that their "property" would not be stolen. These were usually poor whites who had limited employment opportunities. (Genovese 648 )

Professional slave hunters not only used tracking dogs, but eventually developed their own unique techniques for finding runaway slaves. For example, the hunters carried birdshot (small bullets) so that they could catch the slaves without causing too much physical damage. This became common knowledge and one of the fleeing slaves was once caught wearing a homemade "bulletproof vest" stuffed with turkey feathers. The special care of the slave hunters did not remove the possibility that dogs could at times catch the runaways and tear them apart before they could intercede on their behalf. The masters did not do very much to eliminate this possibility, for they felt it gave the rest of the slaves something to think about. (Gorrell 50)

The closer slaves lived to towns and cities or to northern states, the greater the probability they had of escaping. With a little bit of help from slaves on other plantations and from sympathetic whites, some of them were able to obtain freedom. Knowing this, white southerners made a concerted effort to limit the probabilities of escape from border regions, as they felt that too many successes would embolden many other slaves to attempt similar efforts. The constant discussion of the subject of escape led Samuel A. Cartwright, a well-known southern ideologue, to say that blacks suffered from drapetomania, a compulsion to run away from home. (Genovese 650 )

In reality, escape attempts were only efforts to maintain, or attempt to reestablish, the human dignity that had been taken from a people enslaved for many years in inhuman conditions. These were slaves who chose freedom as an alternative to enslavement, no matter what the risks involved. In addition, escape attempts also reflected the fact that an insurrection by blacks in the South had almost zero probability of success. It was, therefore, the only reasonable action to be taken under the circumstances. (Genovese 657)

Henry Brown, a Virginia slave, in his great desire to flee to freedom, devised a very original escape plan. He convinced a friend to ship him from Richmond to Philadelphia in a box two feet, eight inches deep by three feet long. Although the box was marked "This side up with care," he often found himself upside down on the long journey. One time, he was upside down for twenty miles and the veins in his temples became swollen until he could no longer take the pain. When he finally arrived in Philadelphia twenty-six hours later, he soon became known as Henry "Box" Brown. (Cosner 82 )

Slaves were allowed to travel alone only if they had a pass from their master. The pass had to be displayed whenever slaves left the confines of the plantation. Failure to follow this regulation often led to serious penalties. The rod was seldom spared and the physical abuse of slaves was common both in the South and in the North. Whites who assisted slaves also faced severe penalties. These security measures were an attempt to keep escapes, such as Brown's, to a bare minimum. (Haskins 107)

Runaway slaves encountered their greatest assistance from abolitionists who had founded the "Underground Railroad," a loose organization of safe houses owned by white abolitionists to help them escape. The idea that white northerners would begin to assist blacks in large numbers began to terrify white southerners. The slaves were supposedly hid by day and moved from one hiding place to another at night in violation of fugitive slave laws that had been passed from at least 1793. It was not a laughing matter that one of the biggest organizers of this underground operation was a black former slave, Harriet Tubman. ( Burns 43)

There were no metal tracks in the Underground Railroad; it moved along a fellowship of goodwill and sympathy. The conductors were people who met fugitive slaves-passengers-and guided them along their way. The stations were places where runaways could stop and rest and get some help. Stations were run by stationmasters. Conductors and stationmasters were often free blacks or poor farmers, but they could also be wealthy, well-known citizens. The Underground Railroad never really functioned in the Deep South-there just weren't enough sympathizers there, and anyone caught helping runaways was likely to be savagely punished. (Gorrell 63)

Most runaways remained in the South. Many of them would often runaway in groups to undeveloped areas in attempts to establish self-sufficient colonies or villages similar to the ones they had known in Africa. Florida was a common destination. It had an Indian population that could provide some aid and it had a reputation as a haven for runaways. Once the United States acquired Florida, this ceased to be a real option for most slaves.

Escape, for most slaves, was a highly dangerous activity which had to be attempted individually and without much assistance from others. To be successful, slaves had to combat professional bounty hunters, dogs, pangs of hunger, bloodthirsty wildcats, wolves and white men. The fear of punishment, was also a big consideration. Extreme punishment, and ridicule from other slaves and the loss of whatever little freedom slaves had was also a big consideration. Thus, when slaves attempted an escape, it reflected a loss of all hope for a better life and a feeling that there was nothing to be lost but a life of slavery, degradation, and constant humiliation.

( Blassingame 111)



Age Groups of Runaway Slaves
of Runaway Slaves
by Age

Monthly Distribution of Runaway Slaves
of Runaway Slaves
by Month
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